‘Pulling the machete would only increase the length of his life so he could live with the knowledge of his certain death a little longer.’
In the prolo‘Pulling the machete would only increase the length of his life so he could live with the knowledge of his certain death a little longer.’
In the prologue to ‘Infamy’, William Burr is wounded while hunting mahogany thieves in British Honduras. While recuperating, he receives a letter from his former employer, John McQuillan, who is now the chief magistrate of Hobart Town in Van Diemen’s Land. In this letter, Burr is invited to earn a reward:
‘ … One thousand acres of prime grazing pasture on the Coal River, Van Diemen's Land, if you want it. Reward from our old friend Lieutenant Governor Arthur (Colonel Holier Than Thou), who appears thwarted in his ability to capture an escaped felon.'
The escaped felon is Brown George Coyne, who has offered 20 gallons of rum for George Arthur’s arrest.
It is summer in 1830 when William Burr arrives in Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land (now Hobart, Tasmania). This is the era of bloodshed, bushrangers and convicts, and of dispossession of the Aborigines as a consequence of pastoral expansion. It’s a place in which the European settlers try hard to replicate their memories of ‘Home’.
There are a number of key characters in this novel in addition to William Burr. Colonel Arthur himself has a significant role, as does the larger than life Brown George Coyne who lives with his followers in the mountains to the southwest. Coyne has discovered gold and with it considerable power. Other characters include police magistrate Stephen Vaughan and his wife Ellen, the ‘ship trader’ Charles Trentham, a mainland Aborigine – Robert Ringa - who they wanted to use to track down men for hanging, and Tilly Holt who works in Government House. Just after Burr arrives, Ellen Vaughan is kidnapped, and he sets out to rescue her. The story unfolds over a few days, and Burr’s adventures are only part of the story. There is rebellion in Hobart Town, and plenty of violence as bushrangers, convicts, officials and settlers jostle for power.
Will William Burr be able to rescue Ellen Vaughan, and what will happen to Brown George Coyne? And the Aborigines? What is justice in this place?
I found it hard to put this novel down. ‘Infamy’ incorporates history into a fast-paced and riveting fictional colonial crime story. It is bushranger Matthew Brady (1799-1826) who posted a reward of 20 gallons of rum for Colonel Arthur, and references to the Black Line (1830) are a reminder of the shameful treatment of Tasmanian Aborigines. There are a significant number of characters representing different strata of colonial society and this could be confusing, but it isn’t. Each character has a part to play, and each part fits into Mr Bartulin’s portrayal of colonial Van Diemen’s Land. It’s a bloodthirsty world, but the violence never seems gratuitous. Sometimes tragic, often uncomfortable but not gratuitous.
‘Like all terrible news, it made the past seem a simpler place.’
There’s a federal election underway in Australia, and the campaign is thrown into chao‘Like all terrible news, it made the past seem a simpler place.’
There’s a federal election underway in Australia, and the campaign is thrown into chaos when the body of Susan Wright - a popular government minister – is found on the shore of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. A dead cat is also found nearby.
Detective Darren Glass is one of the Australian Federal Police team assigned to the case, and his point of view provides most of the narrative. Glass manages to get both the Police Commissioner and the Prime Minister offside early in the investigation – he’s not the most tactful member of the force. Meanwhile, as the investigation into Susan Wright’s death gets underway, the body of an unpopular adviser from the Prime Minister’s office is found, together with another dead cat.
‘I mean, I’d hate to see a dead cat bounce in our polling this close to Election Day.’
Darren Glass’s voice is interspersed with snippets from Simon Rolfe, a political blogger, and a live feed from a local reporter, Jean Acheson. These additional points of view and comments provide a news and political context around the investigation. A missing file has the government nervous: no-one admits to knowing what it contains but as always knowledge is power. Darren Glass is keen to solve the case – and to get to know Jean Acheson - but in his haste makes a number of mistakes. Will he survive?
This is a police investigation complicated by political intrigue and power struggles. Truth appears relative and is only shared sparingly. Perception is critical in the run up to the election, and some would prefer that certain events remained hidden – at any cost.
I read this novel in one day as I was keen to find out whether I’d worked out who was the perpetrator, and what was their motivation. I found the story of political intrigue and machination was well grounded by the procedural detail. Darren Glass is a likeable character, and the description of Canberra (both in geographical terms and as a hothouse of political intrigue) was terrific.
‘The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.’
The novel opens on 27 January 1866‘The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.’
The novel opens on 27 January 1866, in Hokitaka, a gold-rush town in New Zealand. Walter Moody, who has recently arrived from Scotland with secrets of his own, enters the Crown Hotel smoking room and unwittingly interrupts a gathering of twelve men. Nine of the men are European, two are Chinese, and one is Maori.
Gradually, Walter Moody is told about three events that took place one night two weeks earlier. A reclusive man named Crosbie Wells died in his cottage outside Hokitaka. A young rich man named Emery Staines vanished, while Anna Wetherell an opium-addicted prostitute, who was with Staines earlier in the evening, is found comatose in the middle of the road. Each of the twelve men is somehow involved. Each of them has a piece of the story. But can the pieces be fitted together to complete the story? And what of the people outside of the smoking room? What parts do they play? Gold has been stolen – more than once. Documents appear to tell contradictory stories. Fact and illusion collide, opium and alcohol obfuscate.
It’s a complex story that unfolds over 12 parts. The first part (12 chapters) occupies 360 pages, the twelfth (1 chapter) covers 4 pages. Each part is smaller than its predecessor. From full circle to sliver, there are many angles. Few of the characters are straightforward; some are more devious than others. It’s not always easy to differentiate victim from villain. The cast list at the front of the novel helps to make sense of the characters for the first 300 or so pages. After that, if this book appeals to you, you’ll find that the characters and their personalities become clear.
I loved this novel and found it impossible to put down. Just when I thought I’d made sense of it all and worked it out, a narrative shift or a differently presented perspective would have me question my earlier conclusions. For those interested in the astrological: each of the twelve men has been assigned a sign in the zodiac, six others embody planets, and the titular luminaries – Emery and Anna – are the sun and moon. Those not interested in astrology need not be distracted by it: the story may refer to it and may be structured around it but it does not solely rely on it. The different views of individuals owe as much to occupation and personality as they do to astrology.
‘But the doubled fish of Pisces, that mirrored womb of self and self-awareness, is an ourobouros of mind – both the will of fate, and the fated will – and the house of self-undoing is a prison built by prisoners, airless, doorless and mortared from within.’
As we pursue truth in Ms Patton’s novel, there is plenty of action and adventure along the way. Betrayal, infidelity, piracy and politics provide some of the flavour, as does the search for gold, romance and the tragedy of opium addiction. It’s a hefty book at 832 pages, but I found it one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve tackled this year. I was 300 pages in when it was announced as the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize. I hope that winning this prize at such a comparatively young age is a boon rather than a burden for Ms Catton.
‘So I am to be the unraveller, Moody thought. The detective: that is the role I am to play.’
‘We ought to be content. The harvest’s in.’ In an unnamed village somewhere in pre-industrial England, traditional farming life has followed the ritual‘We ought to be content. The harvest’s in.’ In an unnamed village somewhere in pre-industrial England, traditional farming life has followed the rituals of the seasons for centuries. The rare outsiders who visit are regarded with suspicion. And so, just after the harvest, when someone sets fire to the master’s stables and dovecote, it is convenient to blame a trio of strangers who’ve announced their presence by establishing a camp at the boundaries of the village. Better to blame strangers – and see them punished – than to identify the likely culprits from amongst the village’s fewer than 60 residents. But then another stranger joins them, to survey the fields. Mr Quill, he is nicknamed. Our narrator, Walter Thirsk, is also an outsider. He has lived in the village for twelve years, and while he married a local woman he is now widowed. Walter Thirsk is assigned to assist Mr Quill: injuries he sustained while fighting the fire have rendered him unable to thresh the grain. Master Kent, the apparent land-owner, addresses the villagers before the harvest feast. With their minds on the feast, the villagers don’t sense that the dream Mr Kent is speaking of means significant change.
‘And still he has not said it: Sheep. Am I the only one to recognise what the dream is trying to disguise? The sheaf is giving way to sheep.’
The story unfolds over a period of seven days. Walter Thirsk was once Master Kent’s personal servant, and has links with Master Kent that the other villagers do not. He learns that Master Kent has no title to the land: his wife is dead and they have no child to inherit. His wife’s cousin, Master Jordan is now the land-owner. Master Jordan is even more keen on the benefits of sheep.
As the fact of change becomes clear, the villagers take some matters into their own hands. And when it becomes clear that there may be repercussions, the fragile bonds that hold the village community together are broken. Attempted preservation becomes destruction. The previously settled villagers become fugitive nomads. A way of life is lost – in less than a week.
I became immersed in the world Mr Crace created with his crisp, clear use of language. I hoped for a different ending, but it’s too late to rewrite the history of rural enclosure, and too optimistic to expect humans to behave differently in such circumstances. And Walter Thirsk? I wonder what happened to him. A beautifully written novel.
This is the first of a projected quartet of novels about the Plantagenet dynasty, and opens as the king and qu‘A young Lion steps forth from his den.’
This is the first of a projected quartet of novels about the Plantagenet dynasty, and opens as the king and queen of France, Louis VII and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine return from the Crusades in 1149. Unhappy in her marriage to the monkish Louis, Eleanor begins an affair with Geoffrey le Bel, Duke of Normandy. Geoffrey wants a spy in the French court and sees Eleanor as ideally placed to assist. Although Geoffrey and Eleanor’s affair becomes passionate, Geoffrey is clearly focussed on his main objective: to see his son Henry become King of England.
‘She’s stolen more than my heart. She may steal everything I’ve worked for. Or she may be the key to our triumph.’
Henry meets Eleanor in interesting circumstances, and falls in love with her Byzantine maid Xena. Alas, Xena would not be a suitable queen of England. And Eleanor is keen to divorce Louis, and she’ll have to marry again. Could it be Geoffrey? Or will it be Henry?
‘The man who would soon be king smiled at his wife.’
This novel is full of intrigue, passion, politics, power, sex and vengeance. It’s romance in an historical setting and I suspect I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t come to it with my own (somewhat different) views of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry. In my view the fictional Xena plays too large a role in the lives of both Eleanor and Henry, and while this adds to the atmosphere it detracts from the story. On the other hand, I did enjoy meeting Ms d’Alpuget’s Thomas Becket. There’s an increasing amount of fiction about Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry and whether you like this account may well depend on your own view of the characters involved. Despite my reservations about the depiction of Eleanor and her (possible if not likely) affair with Geoffrey le Bel, I’m interested enough in Ms d’Alpuget’s depiction of Henry to read the second novel once it’s published.
There are four key characters in ‘Requiem for a Dream’: Sara Goldfarb, a lonely widow who spends her days watching tel‘When dreams become nightmares.’
There are four key characters in ‘Requiem for a Dream’: Sara Goldfarb, a lonely widow who spends her days watching television and eating chocolate; her son Harry; Harry’s friend Tyrone C. Love and Harry’s girlfriend Marion. These four lead us through the depths and despair of addiction.
As the story opens, it’s summer in New York City and Harry and Tyrone take Sara’s television to the pawn shop. They need the money for drugs. Sara gets her television back – not for the first time - and the reader starts to wonder what will happen next. Sara eats her chocolates, watches television, and worries (sometimes) about Harry. She is lonely without Seymour (her late husband). And then, Sara’s phone rings:
‘Mrs Goldfarb, this is Lyle Russel of the McDick Corporation.’
Lyle Russel is looking for contestants in game shows and tells Sara that all she needs to do to have a chance to appear on television is fill in a questionnaire. Sara is excited by this, and decides to try to look her best – by losing some weight. Tyrone and Harry are dreaming of getting rich enough to retire: a pound of pure heroin should do it. Tyrone and Harry earn enough money to purchase some drugs and start dealing to people they know. And as the money flows in, Marion and Harry dream of opening a business of their own one day. Elusive things, dreams.
‘It wasn’t that they couldn’t stop using, it was just that this wasn’t the time. They had too much to do and they weren’t feeling well.’
Time passes, winter arrives, and things start to come apart. Sara’s diet hasn’t been successful, but one of her neighbours recommends a doctor who prescribes diet pills. Sara becomes addicted, and the McDick Corporation still hasn’t contacted her. Meantime, Harry, Tyrone and Marion’s heroin supply dries up just as their need becomes greater. And as Harry, Tyrone and Marion become increasingly more desperate for heroin, their dreams disappear and they sink to new depths. No, the consequences of addiction can’t happen to them.
‘But that woman – I have told you I don’t care about that woman. Even if you are correct in your diagnosis and assumptions, the worst that can happen is that she will have a few unnecessary shock treatments.’
It’s Sara I feel sorriest for. She is not aware of the dangers of the diet pills, and by the time help is sought the only doctor who tries to treat her as an individual is overridden by other doctors who see symptoms rather than a person. Sara becomes trapped. The other three each face different consequences. There are no happy endings here.
‘And let me remind you of something doctor … harmony breeds efficiency. Good morning.’
This is a difficult novel to read, both because of the stream of consciousness style of writing and the painful depiction of addiction and its consequences. Each of the characters is chasing a dream, an illusion and each will be disappointed. The reader can see it happening, can feel the pain at times, but can do nothing to intervene. It’s unsettling, and it’s hard to put down this story and walk away.
‘What are you doing here? This was travel, marvellous and sad.’
There are two people’s stories in this novel: two displaced people who’ve travelled in‘What are you doing here? This was travel, marvellous and sad.’
There are two people’s stories in this novel: two displaced people who’ve travelled in order to find, or to escape. Laura Fraser, freshly moneyed thanks to a legacy, leaves Australia behind in order to see the world. Laura ends up in London where she becomes a house-sitter and then works as a travel writer. Laura is an outsider with few attachments. Ravi Mendes leaves his Sri Lankan homeland in fear of his life, and ends up applying for asylum in Australia.
‘Now the world is full of people who don’t belong where they end up and long for places where they did.’
Laura sees Europe through Australian eyes, while Ravi sees Australia through the eyes of an asylum seeker. Travel can be both experience and refuge, either way it is an industry. Half way through the novel, Laura starts working for Ramsay Publications, a publisher of travel guidebooks. Ravi, before he leaves Sri Lanka, was interested in geography and wanted to be a tourist. Neither Laura nor Ravi is fated to belong in the worlds they inhabit. Both remain as outsiders.
‘Ferries passed, lit up like cakes. The bridge went on holding the two halves of the city apart.’
The stories of Laura and Ravi alternate throughout the novel, which covers 40 years of their restless lives. Ravi, at least, has a sense of what is missing in his life. Laura seems less focussed. Travel may have broadened Laura’s experience, but it seems to have diminished her sense of self. Do Laura and Ravi meet? And what impact would any meeting have on their lives?
I found Ravi’s story more engaging than Laura’s: I found it easier to empathise with his situation and to understand his choices. I could also understand how - for Ravi- the Internet became another mode of travel, a way of shrinking a vast world. Travel is not just physical, and it isn’t always beneficial. Laura does not seem to develop as a consequence of her travel, and while Ravi finds comparative safety it is not enough.